Drug lord walks free, and spotlight turns on Mexico's troubled legal system

The US sharply protested the release on procedural grounds of Rafael Caro Quintero, whose sentence for the killing of a US drug enforcement agent was overturned. 

The undated file photo distributed by the Mexican government shows Rafael Caro Quintero, considered the grandfather of Mexican drug trafficking.

As a convicted drug trafficker who played a role in the murder of a US agent walks free in Mexico, frustration with a broken justice system is growing on both sides of the border.

One of Mexico’s most powerful drug traffickers in the 1980s, Rafael Caro Quintero, left a Mexican prison last week, 12 years short of the time he was to serve for his role in the kidnapping, torture, and murder of US Drug Enforcement Agency Special Agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena in 1985. A panel of judges ruled his case should have been tried in a state rather than federal court, and ordered his liberation.

The US, which has poured money into efforts to reform Mexico’s crippled judiciary through the 2008 Merida Initiative, expressed outrage with Mr. Caro Quintero’s release. 

While Mexico voted to reform its judicial institutions in 2008, Mr. Caro Quintero’s release “reminds us that not that much has really changed since he was a dominant drug lord other than the magnitude of the business,” says Howard Campbell, a professor of anthropology at the University of Texas at El Paso, suggesting that corruption is still rampant.

'Deeply troubled'

In a statement Friday, the DEA said it was “deeply troubled” by the news and “will vigorously continue its efforts to ensure Caro Quintero faces charges in the United States for the crimes he committed.” Mr. Camarena’s killing is viewed as the lowest moment in US-Mexico relations.

The White House echoed that commitment on Sunday, and warned of another potential release.

“We have seen reports that another individual connected to Camarena’s killing could also be released,” said White House spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden in a statement. “We remain as committed today in seeing Quintero and others involved in this crime face justice in the United States as we were in the immediate aftermath of Kiki Camarena's murder and will work closely with the Mexican authorities on this.”

The White House didn’t name the other individual, but Mexico’s El Universal newspaper reported that, according to his attorney, Ernesto Fonseca Carrillo – also convicted for participating in Camarena’s murder – could be freed for failings in due process.

Mr. Fonseca Carrillo and Caro Quintero were partners of Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo, known as El Padrino – the godfather – of the once-powerful Guadalajara cartel. Mr. Felix Gallardo remains jailed for Camarena’s murder.

Mexico's Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam said in a statement that he too was "worried" about the court's decision to liberate Caro Quintero immediately and suggested that the court may have acted incorrectly. He affirmed that his office is evaluating whether Caro Quintero will face additional charges.

System engenders little trust

Only a handful of Mexico's states have made advances toward the oral trials or improvements in investigative and prosecutorial procedure the 2008 reforms mandated. And Mexicans express little faith in the judiciary. Judges and state and municipal police ranked at the bottom of a 2012 Parametría poll of confidence in institutions. Fewer than half of respondents expressed “a lot” or even “some” confidence in those key institutions. The federal police and supreme court fared only slightly better. 

“Mexico on paper has some of the most progressive laws in the world, but there is a horrible problem with actually applying justice fairly,” says Mr. Campbell. “There is not a tradition of serious criminal investigations.”

As a result, extradition to the US has historically been one answer to Mexico’s problems with impunity. 

After a Mexican judge acquitted Sandra Avila in 2010 of charges that she was involved in the trafficking of more than nine tons of cocaine headed for the US, Mexican authorities moved to extradite her to the US. She was held in Mexico for almost five years while she awaited extradition to face charges related to aiding her then-boyfriend, suspected Colombian drug trafficker Juan Diego Espinoza Ramirez, evade capture.

In July, a US judge sentenced Ms. Avila, known as the “Queen of the Pacific” for her alleged ties to the Sinaloa drug cartel, to 70 months in prison but ruled the sentence complete due to time already served in the US and Mexico. She is now awaiting deportation to Mexico.

The Mexican government initially told news media last month that it had no case against Avila, and that she would arrive in her homeland a free woman. But then, less than a week later, the national prosecutor’s office said that Avila faces outstanding charges of money laundering. 

Most crimes go unpunished

Observers say authorities’ inability to mount effective investigations and prosecutions, a documented history of forced confessions and torture, and a weak commitment to due process contribute to a troubling statistic: More than 95 percent of crimes go unpunished in Mexico.

Caro Quintero walked free on a technicality, that his case should have been tried at the state level rather than in a federal court. Why it took his lawyers, or the Mexican government for that matter, 28 years to realize the error is anybody’s guess. But his ability to exploit a new concern in the system for proper due process suggests that something is changing, says Raul Benitez, a security expert at Mexico’s National Autonomous University. But overhauling the system, even for the better, carries with it numerous risks.

“Many of the kingpins captured in the 1980s, it’s possible that their cases were poorly done,” he says. “The kingpins never attempted to challenge the process itself; they gave into their defeat. Since the liberation of Florence Cassez” – a Frenchwoman convicted on kidnapping charges but freed in January by the supreme court due to egregious failures in how her case was investigated and prosecuted – “not only criminals but everyone knows that they deserve due process.”

Mr. Benitez also warns that, when known capos walk free, corruption could be at work.

Now, he says, if the US wants Caro Quintero extradited, “Mexican authorities are going to have to capture him again.”

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